The Buffalo mayor's race this year is more talked about than most. No incumbent is running for the first time since 1993. The candidates in the Nov. 8 election have already debated and will some more. The overall caliber of the two people running is high. A determined populist dressed like a Republican faces a huge uphill fight against a career politician poised to take City Hall with values true to his predecessor Democrats.
The anger and thirst for change among voters is likely at historic levels. So what are the crucial issues the candidates face -- gleaned from interviewing four of them -- and what should voters demand?
Leadership. The next mayor needs to be ashamed that a control board oversees "his city." He should be shocked if a relative or friend turns up on the city payroll and act quickly to change it. He needs to get outside City Hall, listen to the people -- and not just his supporters -- and respond with action. He must demonstrate confidence, passion and clear-eyed vision for making this city healthier. Most important, he must hire the best-possible people to administer this city. He can demonstrate that by firing some hold-over department heads -- from the Griffin administration. The captain of this Titanic needs to patch the holes, hire a professional crew and make the passengers safe and happy.
The new mayor will also need to be more effective getting changes in Albany. And he must recognize that the city has not done a capable job of garnering federal aid. Poorer states do far better in Washington because they've learned how to tap into this enormous source of money.
Economic, business and job development. The new mayor can't do this alone, but he can set the tone. He can recruit. He can work the phones. He can consolidate the alphabet soup of agencies working at cross-purposes to lure jobs. He can work with and through business leaders to entice their friends' and acquaintances' businesses here. (GEICO and Bass Pro came via that strategy). Between Nov. 9 and Dec. 31 he can develop and, in his first 100 days, like FDR during the Great Depression, execute a dramatic economic development plan.
Curtailing waste and spending. When Buffalo was a CEO city, it could budget and spend like one. But over the last 40 years, it shrunk to a retiree city and it needs to act like it lives on a fixed income. Because it does. Fewer people working longer hours is a reality for most Americans, whose productivity in the computer age is at historic highs. It should be in City Hall too. A city that lives from handout to handout can't expect filet mignon heath care, salaries or employment levels. In 2005, Buffalo paid $51 million for health insurance and $26 million for pensions. That's more than $75 million (and growing) paid for no direct taxpayer benefit. Does it make sense that residents who can't afford top-shelf benefits for themselves must pay for them for city workers?
The mayor can lead by example, fighting to reduce such "fixed" costs -- like paying $31 million in principal and interest on its accumulated debt in 2005. Create a lean, 21st century operation at City Hall. The Police Department showed it could do better with five districts than 15 precincts. One-officer patrol cars proved more effective than two. This mayor must demonstrate concerted effort to cut expenses, and do so in ways that show he's not wedded to the past and patronage.
Realistic union contracts. While city management wakes up and does with less, so too must city unions. This mayor needs to entice municipal unions back to the table to reopen contracts. The blue-collar and fire unions continue to work under expired agreements. That provides opportunities. Progressive deals with regressive union leaders are possible. Spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a school system that fails to educate thousands of its students cannot be tolerated. An arbitration ruling already determined that fire contracts no longer must match police contracts just because they always did; this is the sort of challenge the new mayor needs to make and win. He should push labor contracts to the limit and find innovations in the face of PERB, the Taylor Law and labor-aligned arbitrators. City Hall deserves flexibility to consolidate and devise new ways to deliver better services. Many of the needed changes have to go through Albany, but a lot can be achieved at the bargaining table, if both sides develop respect and keep the city's future and its taxpayers foremost in their thinking.
Raising Buffalo's opinion of itself. This is an intangible, and related to dramatically improved leadership. But a better attitude helps, even if this election is still all about economic improvement, stupid. Sports success and blizzards show we can come together. Charitable giving and neighborly support demonstrate daily how good a place this is to live. Would you rather be in Miami or New Orleans, where hurricanes destroy lives? Would you rather live in San Francisco, where modest homes on OK streets go for $1 million and up?
Lighten up. There's progress on the waterfront. A Niagara River bridge will be built. UB has a new president who's looking beyond Amherst. Private money is flowing into downtown apartments and condos. A shake-up is coming in the surplus of regional medical facilities. Elmwood Avenue, Chippewa Street and Hertel Avenue are alive and vibrant, and Jefferson Avenue is improving. Buffalo's problems are really not any bigger than any other city's, they're just ours. The key is how we solve them. The new mayor has to do more than cheerlead, he needs to shock and awe the city with the effectiveness of his vision, leadership and action.